From Household to High-Ranking: Are Italian Women on the Move?

A new generation see progress in tradition-bound Italy.

URBINO, Italy – With hope-filled eyes and confidence in her voice, Giada Imolese, 23, states firmly: “I want to work and I want to realize my dreams.”

For a country where women have long been held to the traditional role of wife, mother and homemaker ,Imolese’s goals are increasingly becoming a possibility. But obstacles remain for Italian women yearning for change.

Imolese and other women interviewed here feel Italy’s new generation is working to change the stereotype that women must remain at home, and when they venture into the workplace they should earn less.

In fact, many women in Italy feel that men are starting to recognize their potential and, most importantly, their intelligence.

Floriana Brizi

Floriana Brizi shows a pamphlet for a contest between women nurses in Italy to design an image depicting women in the workplace. The program was designed to make women feel they have the same opportunities and rights as men.

Floriana Brizi is one example. At 47 she is the Chief of Nurses at the Urbino Hospital and is a professor for nursing students at the University of Urbino. Men still hold the higher paying jobs in her field, but Brizi’s director is now a woman.

According to Brizi, when she started 26 years ago there was a hierarchy at the hospital and men thought they were superior to women in all medical fields. But now more women are getting jobs in nursing and are starting to equal men in the number of jobs.

“It is beginning to balance between the two sexes.” she said confidently, speaking through an interpreter. “Before there were more men than women and nowadays we are almost the same.”

And she has a noticed an attitude change at the university where male students treat women as their equals, something unheard of even a few years ago.

Change has also been noted in the local business world, said Ottavia Passimi, 62, owner of a local herb shop. A recent study by the Working Conditions Observatory showed only 25.5% of women Ottavia’s age are employed, and even less own their own business. But Ottavia has owned her own shop, the Erboristeria Calendula, for 20 years and now sees little disrespect from men.

Passimi knows more women are entering the medicinal field and is hopeful that someday women will equal the number of men working in the field, as well as owning their own businesses.

However, growing acceptance and respect for women still isn’t reflected in an Italian woman’s paycheck.
According to Eurostat, a statistical company providing information for the EU, Italian men are paid 17 percent more than Italian women with the same qualifications in the same jobs. Men are also considered more often for promotions in the workplace, making it harder for women to make more money, the study showed.
Laura Chiarantini, a former member of the University of Urbino’s Committee of Equal Opportunities (CEO), says those statistics hold true in academia.

[pullquote]Although women obtain consistently better academic results, their access to higher administrative and teaching positions is unreasonably limited.[/pullquote]

“Although women obtain consistently better academic results, their access to higher administrative and teaching positions is unreasonably limited,” she said.

Chiarantini said that women earn less money annually than men because men are generally the only people to occupy high earning jobs.

According to a study by PayScale, an online salary, benefits and compensation information company, Italian women earn €18,446 – €40,740 per year while a men average to €54,085 per year across all job sectors..
Chiarantini said that while the number of female graduates in Italy has increased, women’s careers still last much shorter because they often have to choose to stay at home with their children.

Ottavia Passimi

Bernardo Valli, 64 and Dean of Sociology at the University of Urbino, also agrees that women’s progression to move out of traditional gender roles is slow, but the pace of change reflects regional traditions.

“Progression depends on the area that the woman lives in,” he said.

Valli believes progress for women has advanced much quicker in the northern part of the country than in the south. He says women in the northern city of Milan will find greater equal opportunities than those living in the southern city of Rome.

And the southern island of Sicily remains one of the most conservative sections of the country, Valli said, a place where it is hard for women to break from traditional gender roles.

American Carolyn Burke has experienced this first hand. The mother of two lived in Sicily with her Italian husband for two years before they moved to Urbino. And while she noted society in both Urbino and Sicily consider men and women to have specific roles, Sicilian values were much more severe. For example, she noticed in Sicily there were no women in the piazza except those who were shopping for their husbands.

“Women stayed at home…some women thought they were liberated when they said ‘Oh, I’m so lucky, my husband does the housework for me’,” she said. “…they are slaves in the house.”

“There is still the very traditional mentality that women stay at home and men go to work and when they come home, they are served.”

Young Italian women like Giada Imolese say they won’t accept these traditional barriers.
Speaking quickly with excitement in her voice, she says, “It is very wonderful that new generations start to think differently because we are in the 21st century and we are evolving and we have to think different.”

Many women students learn from their mothers that they will probably not have as much opportunity as men, Imolese said, but she is intent on focusing her life on her career – the new way for a new generation of Italian women.

And while she predicts older Italian men will see women juggling families with high-ranking jobs as almost blasphemous, Imolese thinks this new generation is about to write new social rules for Italy.